JEFFERSON CITY — If presidential candidate Rick Santorum fails to win a majority of Missouri's delegates to the Republican National Convention, it may be because of an alliance forged by supporters of Mitt Romney and Ron Paul at several pivotal local caucuses this past weekend.
Santorum won Missouri's nonbinding presidential primary in February, sweeping all 114 counties and the city of St. Louis after he was the only Republican candidate to campaign before the election. But Santorum did not score a clean sweep Saturday, when Republicans caucused at nearly 140 sites in a first step toward allotting Missouri's delegates to particular presidential candidates.
Although Santorum's supporters turned out in significant numbers, they got outmaneuvered in some caucuses when Paul proponents paired up with Romney followers to form a majority coalition. The alliance brought together some of the Republican Party's traditional insiders — supporting Romney — and its fringe activists — supporting Paul — to potentially deny delegates to Santorum, the candidate most capable of mounting a challenge to the front-running Romney.
Nationally, Romney leads the Republican race with 521 delegates, compared with Santorum's 253, Newt Gingrich's 136 and Paul's 50, according a count by The Associated Press.
Missouri's 52 delegates are not yet included in that tally. That's because the local caucuses that occurred this past weekend — as well others scheduled for Saturday in Jackson County and St. Louis — did not bind delegates to particular presidential candidates. Rather, the county and township caucuses are choosing 2,123 people to advance to regional Republican conventions April 21 and a state party convention June 2, where delegates will be given to presidential candidates.
Confusion and contention were common at Missouri's local caucuses, but the Paul and Romney camps used that to their advantage in some cases.
Paul supporters dominated Saturday's caucus in Boone County, where he had campaigned two days earlier. They paired with a smaller Romney contingent to elect a slate of 48 Paul delegates and five Romney delegates to advance to the next round in the selection process. Santorum was shut out.
Santorum supporters were also outflanked in the Republican stronghold of Greene County. A Paul-Romney alliance resulted in a slate allotting 65 delegates to Paul, 40 to Romney and six to Santorum.
A similar alliance turned back Santorum supporters in the Capitol's home of Cole County, where Romney backers comprised the bulk of the 35 delegates with some also going to Paul supporters.
In Franklin County, Santorum carried the plurality on an initial vote of separate delegate slates put forward by the three camps. But during a break, Paul and Romney supporters combined forces, resulting in victory for a revised 40-person delegate slate in which Paul supporters comprised a little less than two-thirds of the delegates and Romney supporters comprised more than one-third. Santorum supporters were left with nothing.
"The Ron Paul people and the Romney people were willing to work together because they wanted to get some delegates to the next level, and that was the way to do it," said Jedidiah Smith, a Paul delegate from Franklin County. "It's not so much that they see eye-to-eye together."
A Romney-Paul coalition nearly prevailed in the St. Louis County township of Chesterfield, where Santorum campaigned just hours before Saturday's caucus. Former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, a Romney campaign adviser, attempted to broker a compromise that would have provided some delegates for all the presidential campaigns. But Santorum's group rejected it.
"It's perfectly legal to team up," said Judy Hon, a Chesterfield township committeewoman who led the Santorum contingent. "I asked if the Ron Paul people could be removed and they did not want to make that compromise. So I said, 'We'll go for broke.'"
In the resulting vote, the slate of Santorum delegates narrowly prevailed over a slate that consisted of 16 Romney delegates, three Paul delegates and one delegate for Newt Gingrich.
The reason for the Romney-Paul alliance is more political and philosophical.
As the frontrunner, Romney comes out ahead every time Santorum does not win a delegate.
In that sense, "a vote for Paul is a vote for Romney," said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University.
As the candidate trailing the delegate race, Paul's best shot at relevance is to gain enough delegates to command a role at the Republican National Convention.
"What they're guaranteeing is access to the convention" by teaming up with Romney, Connor said.
Santorum still has a shot at winning the majority of Missouri's delegates from its eight congressional district conventions and state convention. But if the Romney-Paul alliance remains firm, the result could be a split of Missouri's 52 delegates among various presidential candidates.
That would be fine with Romney's camp.
"I hope what happens is we get some kind of a split that reflects, I think, the real feeling within the party — because it's clear to me that it's split," Talent said.
David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. He may be followed on Twitter @DavidALieb.